About two months ago I accidentally deleted my Ubuntu install, then started again with Debian but made a mess of that too. All the while I was dual-booting Windows 8 on another hard drive and installing GRUB with Debian irreversibly broke the Windows boot process. To cut a long story short, I decided to format all hard drives and start again from scratch, which gave me an opportunity to try out the new Windows 8.1 preview.
Microsoft have made a short trailer for the update and it does a good job of showing off the new features even if it doesn’t actually explain what they are.
During the install it requires a Microsoft account to set up a new user, and unlike Windows 8 there’s no obvious button for bypassing this option. The solution is to just write gobbeldeygook into the form, the installer won’t recgonise it as a valid account and offer to create a local account instead. I don’t understand why having a Microsoft account is slowly turning into a requirement for using a Windows PC. There’s no benefit for me to get a Microsoft account, I don’t need it and I wish Microsoft would stop pressuring me to get one.
When I started up the pc I didn’t see any huge difference, and it’s worth pointing out here that I don’t use Windows regularly so other users might have different first experiences. Initially the system didn’t recognise my monitor, then it fumbled around looking for drivers for my graphics card before eventually giving up. I went straight to the manufacturer’s website and downloaded the drivers myself, and that sorted everything out. I didn’t have this problem on Windows 8 so they’ve probably broken something on the way. It is a preview version and a beta, so weird little quirks like this are bound to be happen. I expect everything will be sorted out by the time it launches officially.
Probably the most obvious new feature is the start button. When clicked it takes you to the start screen, and it’s functionally the same thing as the hidden lower-left-hand corner button from Windows 8. So it doesn’t actually do anything different, but I understand Microsoft’s design choice to turn it into a permanent start button on the desktop. It creates some continuity with the classic start buttons from earlier editions of windows and this makes it more familiar to some users (like me) who haven’t gotten the hang of the new layout yet. I also see it as a nod to Microsoft’s corporate users who were a bit surprised by the new layout and would prefer a more conservative design. Another new change in this direction is a little arrow on the bottom left of the start screen which when clicked shows all apps in a uniform list, without the colourful tiles. On the other end of the design scale, the start screen now has a personalise option which allows you to choose your own custom colour scheme and pick from a list of pre-set backgrounds, you can also change the picture on the lock screen.
Another thing about the start screen is that one of the backgrounds is slightly animated. Microsoft already tried to introduce animated backgrounds with dreamscene for Vista but it never caught on. Now animation is being re-introduced in a much more subtle way alongside the rest of the Windows redesign.
In terms of new apps there’s a new built-in sound recorder and calculator. These don’t do much more than the old sound recorder and calculator but they’ve undergone a redesign to give them new ‘Metro-style’ interfaces. My guess is that they’re there as examples for app developers to follow.
There’s a new replacement for Windows Movie Maker called Movie Moments. Unfortunately it’s only available on the Windows Store and I can’t download it because I don’t have a Microsoft account. The photos on the store page actually show less features than Movie Maker, it’s possible some are hidden in the interface. It certainly looks more professional, even if it’s not likely to be useful for anything more than the most basic video editing.
Internet Explorer gets an upgrade from 10 to 11. I played with it for a bit before going back and downloading Firefox. It passed the Acid3 test with full marks and passed the Sputnik test with 99.94%. Apparently it switches tabs faster, I already flick between tabs so quickly on any browser that it feels like an instant transition. I’d like to hear the experiences of people with significantly slower computers and whether IE11 feels significantly faster on those. IE11 also has a new raft of developer tools which brings it up to par with other browsers, normal users wouldn’t see these but I’m sure they’ll be appreciated by web designers.
There’s a reading list app, which basically copies the ‘bookmarks’ function on any browser. It’s supposed to work with the share button on the right-hand hidden menu and I think it integrates into the news app, but so far I’ve not worked out how to add things to my reading list. I don’t think it does anything which isn’t already covered by most RSS readers and notes applications.
The Health and Fitness suite is a collection of small apps which pretty much covers the functions of all the apps in the ‘Health and Fitness’ category in the Microsoft Store. This is unfair on ‘health and fitness’ app developers because their software is going to get undercut by the Microsoft suite which has the advantage of being installed by default.*
For the rest of the features Microsoft released a product guide, unfortunately it’s difficult to make out the new features amongst all the buzzwords and marketing babble. I’ve tried to condense all 27 pages into a short summary:
- Up to 4 apps can share the screen at the same time. They’re announcing this like it’s some amazing new feature, I mean just look at the name of the operating system, Microsoft invented windows way back in 1985 so I can’t believe this is considered progress.
- Support for the bluetooth 4 low-energy protocol (also known as bluetooth smart) along with more support for energy efficient processors. This helps for mobile devices to lengthen their battery life, and it’s particularly important for Microsoft because tablets are one of their target devices.
- Fresh Paint app. I’m sure I’ve seen this before so I’m not sure if it’s really ‘new’ or whether it’s just included by default now.
- Camera app now has a panorama feature
- Photos app now comes with a few simple photo-editing features. There’s now a smooth transition when switching between photos.
- Redesigned Windows store
- Improved biometric capabilities. They don’t say exactly how they’ve been improved, still it’s good news for people who use fingerprint scanners.
- Vague non-specific improvements to Windows Defender
- Closer integration with third-party VPN clients. This is aimed at businesses but it’s also useful for anyone else who uses VPNs for privacy reasons.
- Access to xbox music. It looks like it’s trying to present itself as Microsoft’s answer to itunes. I don’t know anyone who actually uses xbox music, and it probably won’t get very far.
- Bing integration with the search on the start screen. It makes sense, Microsoft has a search engine and they may as well give you results from it if you’re connected to the internet. It doesn’t do it for me though because I opted out during the intallation.
- Support more touch gestures. This is Microsoft trying to balance mouse and touch controls, I don’t know what the new gestures do because I use a mouse.
- Skydrive integration. I’m in favour of more integration with cloud storage services in general but locking the user into Microsoft’s own specific service is unnecessary and a bit pushy.
In summary I think a lot of these changes deal with Windows 8’s various audiences and use-cases. It’s trying to cover all bases in one continuous experience from tablets to desktop PCs. It’s also stuck between it’s image as a serious OS for doing work on, and a casual OS for entertainment. Microsoft clearly has difficulty reconciling these two aims. I do recommend upgrading, if only for the little things, the background improvements in performance. It should be rolled out to everyone sometime in September, and if you want to get the preview a bit earlier you can download it here.
*disclosure: someone I know is developing an app in the Health & Fitness section of the store and this built-in app directly competes with their app, that’s my personal interest in this